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Venus in Fur

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 1, 2014 at 1:53 a.m.

Venus in Fur

87 Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Mathieu Amalric

Director: Roman Polanski

Rating: Not rated

Running time: 96 minutes

In French, with English subtitles

The most obvious strategy for adapting a theatrical production to the screen is to open it up, to remove it from its necessarily bounded set and situate it in a "realer world." Some productions can take being dragged from the vacuum of the stage, others cannot, but we're 100 years past the point where simply filming the play can pass as cinematic. And so Julia Roberts inexplicably lights out for the territory, her grin-cracked face abeam, at the end of August: Osage County, the movie.

Roman Polanski (boo and hiss if you must, but respect the man's art) tends not to employ that strategy. But then Polanski is at his best in close quarters. He thrives in closed and claustrophobic spaces, the unnerving awkward distance between repulsion and intimacy. His first film, 1962's Knife in the Water, a thriller about a couple on a sailboat who must deal with a dangerous stranger, was conceived as "interplay of antagonistic personalities within a confined space." He uses actors like toy magnets -- when he brings them together they either click in satisfaction or, at the last possible instant, push apart in nauseous revolt. Either way can be interesting.

And so Polanski would seem to be the ideal film director to adapt David Ives' 2010 Tony-nominated play, also called Venus in Fur, which is itself based on the famous 1870 novel Venus in Furs (note the plural) by Austrian author Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the term "masochism" derives. The play is the story of playwright Thomas Novachek (Mathieu Amalric), who is adapting Sacher-Masoch's book to the stage. And while he may have started out as Ives' doppelganger in the movie, he looks uncannily like a younger Roman Polanski (no coincidence; Polanski's son Elvis played the younger version of Amalric's character in 2007's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), with the same flop of hair, peering pensively over his glasses as he regards the remarkable Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner, who further complicates the affair by being, in real life, Mrs. Roman Polanski).

It is through Vanda's eyes that we enter the film, in what is Polanski's only exploitation of the cinematic ability to move outside the theater. The camera sweeps along a wide Parisian boulevard, so lovingly rendered in high dynamic range imaging that it looks like a digital animation, with its charcoal trees and flickering streetlamps, before yawing sharply to the right and busting through a Mystery Science Theater 3000 sequence of doors to arrive at the inner sanctum. That's where Thomas has been conducting auditions for his Venus in Fur play. Vanda is late.

And inappropriate for the character she wants to play. She's brassy and loud and dressed in a dog collar and hooker's bustier. She manages language, and seems oblivious to nuance. Thomas can't see her as an elegant and sophisticated 19th-century noblewoman who turns into an icy and demanding dominatrix consort -- Venus incarnate in the eyes of her subservient admirer Severin (the surrogate for Sacher-Masoch and Thomas, and probably David Ives and Roman Polanski). But he can't quite dismiss her out of hand -- for one thing, the character for which this uncouth woman wants to audition is also named Vanda. He can't resist giving it a shot.

So Thomas reads Severin's lines and gradually assumes his character as Vanda proves herself uncannily able to inhabit her role and comment on it. Over the course of 90 minutes or so, we get to watch as two actors play a kind of three-dimensional chess. Vanda is Vanda. But she's also Venus (and don't forget Polanski's wife). Thomas is Severin and also the playwright who has adapted a tricky novella -- and he's also playing Polanski.

Polanski has spoken of movies as disguised autobiography, and it's not hard to draw parallels between his life and the work he has taken on. (The Pianist was at least as much about his childhood in the Polish ghetto of Krakow as it was about the survival of its putative subject, Wladyslaw Szpilman.) It's easy to read Venus in Fur, the closest Polanski has come to overt comedy since 1967's The Fearless Vampire Killers, as a kind of self-critique. It's loaded with references to Polanski's previous work, and the casting choices certainly point that way.

Still, as interesting as it is to think about, Venus in Fur is hardly a complete triumph. It's an amusing bit of meta-fiction, but it doesn't overcome the inherent ridiculousness of its source material. Sacher-Masoch's book is a bit of a bore, and while it's interesting to watch the backstage story, to see Amalric and Seigner move from level to level of characterization, the movie is better when it's more about the acting process and less about Severin's willingness to negate himself for his beloved. And so the final comeuppance feels labored and false, as though it exists simply to give us a striking visual quote of Polanski's The Tenant (1976).

It's contrived and highly artificial, but no one is better than Polanski at converting staginess to his own purposes. Venus in Fur has a nightmarish quality about it, as though Thomas is trapped in his obsession, with no escape from his theater.

MovieStyle on 08/01/2014

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kuba says... August 19, 2014 at 12:36 p.m.

The term 'Polish Ghetto of Krakow' is historically incorrect. The German Nazis established the Ghettos on occupied Polish soil. The Ghettos were not Polish as implied by the comment. Please correct the error.

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